Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to join the debate on Bill C-303, sponsored by the hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques. I congratulate the member for the bill, which is an effort to help out certain workers, who must travel far distances for work, with their expenses.
I first want to comment on a couple of items that were mentioned by the previous two speakers, the first being the softwood lumber issue. I basically agree with those speakers on the efforts that Canada is and should be taking on that file. I agree with the items they suggested and commend them to all members in the House. We have had several take note debates on that and numerous meetings with our opponents and friends in the United States to try to resolve the problem that is being caused by a special interest group. We are more determined than ever to do that.
The member of Her Majesty's loyal opposition mentioned EI. I just wanted to put on the record that the Canadian Federation of Labour has presented some very creative ways of using the EI fund for training, over 55 programs and other methods to make it more effective. I encourage the Minister of Human Resources to look at those.
Finally, in response to previous speakers, I also agree that the United States is our greatest trading partner. By geography it is right beside us and it has the disposable income. We can ship there cheaper than anywhere else in the world and we sell the largest number of products. It is therefore important to ensure a smooth relationship for our workers and our families in Canada.
On this particular bill, it appears the intention is to give a tax deduction to forestry workers. It would be a deduction for motor vehicle expenses that they incur for travel between their home and distant work sites. I understand why the hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques would want to do something special for forestry workers. Forestry workers are the backbone of the forestry sector, a sector that contributes significantly to our economy. In 2002 alone, for example, forestry exports contributed more that $32 billion to our economy and our trade surplus. That is an important contribution indeed.
As I said, forestry workers are the backbone of this sector. Today, more than 350,000 hardworking Canadians are directly employed in this sector. In forestry and logging alone there are more than 75,000 jobs. This number is much higher when we count the people working in the wood and paper products industry or related industries.
Employment in the forestry sector is a major source of income that helps sustain many communities across this vast nation: communities such as Prince George, British Columbia; Le Pas, Manitoba; and Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia. Of course, I cannot forget that forestry is important to a number of communities in Quebec represented by the hon. member.
I also want to mention, for those who do not know, that we have a good forestry resource in Yukon. We have some tremendous white spruce and lodge pole pine trees. The grade on those trees is so fine, because some of them take 300 or 400 years to grow, that they are highly prized by the Japanese and other markets for their high quality and strong wood.
As the member mentioned, we do have workers who travel back and forth on the Dempster highway at great costs to get to their jobs. However there are no trees at the top of the Dempster highway, which points to what the government was saying, which was that there are all sorts of workers, who incur tremendous expenses to travel long distances, who would not be covered by the bill.
I also agree with the hon. member who just spoke, a former Yukoner I might add, that people should be congratulated for moving and should be helped out when they move for employment. In Yukon, to once again make the government's point, our economy is at a low ebb and a lot of people are temporarily moving right now. I congratulate them for leaving their homes to be positive contributors to our economy. However they are not moving to go into the forestry industry. Most of them are moving to go into mining and into the oil and gas sectors near us. Once again, this points out the government's point about fairness for these other sectors.
A strong forestry sector is an important element of Canada's future prosperity. That is why in May 2002 the federal government announced a five year $35 million Canada wood export program. This program brings together partners, the wood product associations, provinces, territories and the industry to work together to expand offshore export opportunities for Canadian wood products in traditional and emerging markets. Doing so will strengthen exports, increase economic growth and create jobs for forestry workers.
Therefore, I can understand the hon. member's desire to support forestry workers, but the bill is not the best way to do it. I might add that some of the items that the members in the debate have brought forward on how we can help them I fully support. I thought they were good suggestions.
However, as I said earlier, the bill proposes to give an income tax deduction for motor vehicles expenses that forestry workers incur to travel between home and distant work sites. Deductible costs would include the day to day, out of pocket expenses required to operate the vehicle. These would be things like gasoline, repairs and maintenance costs, insurance and licence fees. Forestry workers would also be allowed to claim depreciation on the original cost of the vehicle and they could claim interest costs associated with any loan taken out to acquire that vehicle.
The first issue I have with the bill is one of fairness. Tax rules should be fair not only to the taxpayers directly affected by change but also to other Canadians.
The bill would introduce special relief on commuting costs incurred by forestry workers. Most employees have to commute to work and incur costs in doing so. Some even have to travel relatively long distances to remote locations. As I said previously, forestry workers are not the only workers in this category. There are workers in the construction, oil and gas and the mining sectors and farmers who often work far from home as well.
I am not talking about moving expenses. I congratulate the previous member who spoke. He said that there should be support for moving expenses. There is a moving tax deduction in the Income Tax Act if one moves for employment.
However, despite the good intentions, the bill overlooks all these other employees whom I just mentioned; people who face the same kind of travel requirements as forestry workers. How can we justify providing a special tax concession that would only be good for one category of worker? In good conscience I do not think we could.
It is also worthy to note that the bill is unclear about who is included in the definition of forestry worker. Are cooks at logging camps considered to be forestry workers? Would a secretary working at a remote logging site be eligible? Why would we deny these workers tax relief when they incur exactly the same costs? It is a difficult situation, to be sure. Would a cook in another business who travels to work be eligible?
How could we expect to limit tax relief only to long distance commuting costs and ignore the fact that most workers incur costs connected in one way or another to their jobs? In addition to getting to and from work, different kinds of employees face special expenses related to their work. There was some adjustment for that in the standard personal deduction.
For example, many professionals have to buy computers if they often have to take work home. Maybe they need to be connected to the office to handle after hours urgencies. Of course, there could be many work related reasons for needing a computer at home. Other kinds of employees need other things. Most trades people for instance need to provide their own tools. These employees include carpenters, electricians and plumbers to name a few. In other cases employees may be required to provide their own uniforms or safety clothing.
It is safe to say that all the employees I mentioned, and many more I could have mentioned if time allowed, are incurring out of pocket expenses to perform their jobs.
This is precisely the problem with the bill at hand. How can we give forestry workers some special privilege under the tax system, a deduction for their long distance commuting costs, which we all agree is difficult, while ignoring the equally necessary and equally important expenses that other employees incur.
This leads me to my second concern with the bill. We must ask ourselves what would happen if we were to recognize the employment expenses of all the workers in all categories? The answer we would run into a major problem of affordability. Just to illustrate the enormity of the cost, we can look at the impact of reintroducing the $500 tax deduction for employment related expenses.
In closing, I congratulate the member, but we must have a fairer system for helping the workers in this industry.